Storytelling at Work
June 23, 2020
The Dark Side of Storytelling

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Storytelling is like water. It can quench your thirst or it can drown you. Or maybe storytelling is like a knife. It can slice open an orange or it can poke your eye out. Simply put, storytelling is a two-sided coin. One side gives life, the other takes. One side is authentic, the other is counterfeit. And this is, precisely, where the plot thickens, because story, the most effective communication tool human beings have at their disposal, has been used in both ways since the beginning of time.

Yes, some people use it to heal, inspire, and enlighten. But others use it to deceive, control, and manipulate. Storytelling for the Revolution has been written for the first group, the group, I imagine, you identify with. But no how much you identify with the first group, there's always a chance you might, without knowing it, find your way, subconsciously, into the second group, especially during times of stress, fear, or anger.

Let's take a brief tour of the dark side by looking, first, at advertising.

Technically speaking, advertising is nothing more than the practice of calling public attention to a product or service. Is that an inherently bad thing? No, it isn't. Unless, of course, the way in which our attention is being called is ruled by manipulation, control, or deception.

Advertisers, for the most part, are motivated by one driving force -- to get you to buy what they're selling, whether or not what they're selling is actually something you need. They need to sell it, but you may not need to buy it -- that is, until your choices have been shaped by your psychological responses to the ads they keep sending your way. Do you know what story advertisers communicated in the 1950's? That smoking was actually good for your health. Tell that to my mother, who died of emphysema, at 83, after six decades years of smoking unfiltered Chesterfields.

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Political spin doctors also walk on the dark side of storytelling. Along with thousands of others watching the news, they listen to the words of the President or the politician du jour, but before the viewing audience has had the time to form their own opinions, the spin doctors do the forming for them. And how they do that is by quickly telling a new story about the story the viewing audience just heard. They interpret what's just been said in whatever way is most likely to sway opinion. The Big Bad Wolf wasn't really all that bad, you see, he was just sleep-deprived or maybe his eyesight was failing. Donald Trump wasn't lying, he was just presenting "alternative facts."

Trial lawyers are masters of this dark art, especially when they deliver their closing arguments. Armed with exactly the same information that has been presented to the jury for weeks, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney tell completely different stories. They pick and choose from the facts that most support the conclusion they want others to believe and they string them together in a way that makes their conclusions seem like fact, when they may not be. And the masters of the trade distill the new story down to as few words as possible. "If the glove don't fit, you gotta acquit" was the eight word story Johnny Cochrane told the jury in defense of OJ Simpson '' and we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps the grossest example of storytelling gone south is "revisionist history" -- what happens when people, with an ulterior motive, attempt to rewrite the past to suit their own needs. The history of early America, for example, is primarily a narrative crafted by white colonialists who specialized in killing Native Americans and stealing their land. "Westward ho!" was the plot line. "The pioneering spirit" was the leading man's motivation. And the back story? "The early settlers quest for religious freedom." Murder? Rape? Plunder? Barely mentioned.

Do you think the Apache, Cherokee, and Oneida are telling the early settlers' version of American history around the tribal fire? No way. Their story, the real story of what happened, goes unheard in public schools. "Those who tell the story, rule the world," explain the Hopis from their underfunded reservation in Oklahoma.


None of my family died in the holocaust, but I have many friends whose family did. Six million Jews died in concentration camps. But the tale tellers of the Holocaust denial movement communicate a very different story these days. They claim, with great passion and "proof," that Nazi Germany's final solution was aimed only at deporting Jews and had nothing to do with exterminating them -- that gas chambers and concentration camps never existed. And they figure if they tell it that story enough times to enough people, popular opinion will change. And it has. There are now thousands of people around world who actually believe the holocaust was a hoax.

Closer to home, the dark side of storytelling (or at least the grey side of storytelling) plays out in just about every marriage in the world. Here's how it works: A conversation begins between husband and wife, one that quickly polarizes both partners. He sees it one way and she sees it another. Buttons get pushed. Old wounds surface. He said/she said rules the day. Which quickly leads to the husband and the wife crafting their own stories about the contentious topic at hand. Each spouse blurts their story to the other, but because feelings are running so high, neither story is heard and, even if it is, it is not believed.

Which leads, of course, to the husband and wife each seeking out their own friends to tell their stories to -- the sole purpose being to get validation. The stories make sense. They are told with great passion. Heads nod. Comforting gestures are made. The wife's friends conclude the husband is a jerk and the husband's friends conclude the wife is a bitch. And on and on it goes. 50% of the time this saga ends up in divorce court, an extraordinary stage where lawyers, far better tale tellers than their embroiled clients, get paid big bucks to concoct the most convincing stories possible for the judge.

Does anyone live happily ever after? Rarely. But a lot of money exchanges hands. And a lot of children will have sad stories to tell, years later, to their own children.

In the end, it all comes down to this: we have two choices. One choice is to be of service to our fellow man -- to uplift, inspire, and awaken. The other choice is to serve ourselves, ruled only by the need for attention, approval, validation, power, control, money, fame, ratings, or our lifelong addiction to hearing ourselves talk.

What choice will you make?

Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling at Work

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at June 23, 2020 07:52 PM


Great story Mitch, your comments really resonate with me. I will share them. Keep up the good story telling! I am now combining my paintings with stories of them with the possibility of a future book project.

Posted by: Rohana Laing [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 23, 2020 03:19 PM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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Storytelling for the Revolution
Storytelling for the Revolution is Mitch Ditkoff's newly published book about the power of personal storytelling to elevate the conversation on planet Earth. Provocative. Evocative. And fun. YOU have stories to tell. This book will help you tell them.
Storytelling at Work
"The world is not made of atoms," wrote the poet, Muriel Rukeyser. "It's made of stories." Learn how to discover, honor, and unpack the stories of yours that show up "on the job" in Mitch Ditkoff's award-winning 2015 book, Storytelling at Work.
Do you want to know more about the book before buying it? Click here for Mitch's response to frequently asked questions about Storytelling at Work – the perfect book for people who think they have no time to read.
The Workshop
Storytelling is an "unconscious competency" – an ability we all have that all too often remains inaccessible to us. Enter the Storytelling at Work workshop – a simple way to activate this powerful, innate skill.
Wisdom Circles
Want to establish a culture of storytelling in your organization or community? Looking for a simple way to help people to share their meaningful, memorable stories with each other? Here's how.
Podcasts & Videos
Click here to view and listen to a series of interviews with the author of this blog. Go beyond the written word. Listen. Feel. Elevate the conversation. Understand what the big deal is about personal storytelling.
Blogs 'R Us
If you like this blog, you might also like Mitch's other two blogs: The Heart of Innovation and The Heart of the Matter. Mitch is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.
Idea Champions
When Mitch isn't writing, he's captaining the good ship Idea Champions, a leading edge innovation consulting and training company based in Woodstock, NY. What their clients say.